And Other Fantasies
Individuals who are anti-nuclear or just plain afraid of nuclear have long harbored the illusion that existing nuclear power is easy to replace. "Just build more solar arrays," I have heard, or "Just put up more windmills." Few are aware of how long it takes to build any new capacity in substantial quantities.
While individuals can, perhaps, be forgiven for not being able to "do the math" and figure out what is really involved in substituting for a substantial fraction of a nation's electricity supply, it is more troubling when countries start subscribing to the same myths, as several countries have done in the last couple of weeks.
Not surprisingly, given its history, Germany has led the way. "We'll just build more renewable energy sources and improve the grid," the government has said. Switzerland soon followed. Grudgingly, the governments are acknowledging that their move in this direction means that they will burn more fossil fuels, at least in the near future.
Actually, it will probably mean that they will build more fossil fuels for quite some time, as they are acknowledging that the shutdown of nuclear plants will require new fossil fuel capacity. It is hard to see them building new fossil-fueled power plants for just a few years of operation. Therefore, the first casualty of the German and Swiss decision is the effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
What Germany and Switzerland are not acknowledging is that they will actually not cut their effective use of nuclear power by very much. One advantage of the interconnected European grid is that they can draw on power produced by their neighbors. This allows them to self-righteously proclaim that they are leading the world to a newer, greener nirvana, while they conveniently block out the fact that their neighbors produce much of the electricity by means of nuclear power plants.
As an aside, I should say that I'm not completely sure that France and other neighbor countries can make up for the loss of this much nuclear power without having some negative effects for their own country. So, the second casualty of the German and Swiss decision may be some larger geopolitical consequences.
In any event, Japan doesn't have the luxury of drawing electricity from neighboring countries. Being an island, it is not interconnected to other sources of supply, nuclear or non-nuclear. Therefore, despite the magnitude of the accident, it is surprising and troubling to hear some people in Japan speculate that they may not restart reactors as they shut down for routine maintenance, and that all of Japan's reactors could be closed a year from now. While this may be an extreme view, even the less extreme views seem to be disconnected with reality.
It is true that there is a lot of local opposition to nuclear power at the moment, and the concern of the public is understandable. However, Japan is already suffering power shortages with the plants that are currently shut down. And it isn't even the height of summer there yet.
Even before the accident, Japan had a tight power supply by Western standards. Of course, I know that Americans use more energy than other industrialized nations, and that other countries maintain a standard of living similar to ours with a lower per capita energy expenditure. Still, having lived in both Japan and France, I can say from personal experience that not only are homes smaller in Japan than elsewhere, but the supply of electricity per household is also smaller.
Therefore, I am disappointed to see Japan appearing to retreat from reality. Germany and Switzerland may be able to survive with their heads in the sand, while others feed their thirst for electricity, but Japan has no such options. So a consequence of the directions Japan is beginning to take may have severe consequences on the Japanese economy.
In short, the rosy optimism countries seem to have that they will "just" replace nuclear power with other sources of electricity is likely to have some serious negative consequences, both within their own borders and around the world.